Above: Ipek Saday as Calista (left) gets a momentary smile from Richard Lee as Anon in UW Tacoma's 2015 staging of Anon(ymous). Photo by Peter Serko.
In 2014, UW Tacoma took its first steps towards bringing staged theater to campus by presenting a portion of Elena Hartwell's Unwritten Women: Five Short Plays Based on Female Literary Characters From History. The production was by all accounts a success, staging three intimate performances at the black box theater space in the Cherry Parkes building.
Now, in 2015, UW Tacoma has teamed up with Toy Boat Theatre to present Naomi Iizuka's Anon(ymous) for 6 showings that began on May 7, with the final three performances being staged on May 14, 15 and 16 at 7:30 P.M. (Tickets via Brown Paper TIckets.)
Described as "a gritty, contemporary reimagining of Homer's The Odyssey through the lens of the American immigrant experience," the play tells the story of Anon (played by UW Tacoma freshman Richard Lee), a young refugee who, while journeying through the United States in search of his family, encounters many strange, wonderful and sometimes dangerous characters familiar to anyone who has read Homer's epic poem. Along the way, Anon encounters tremendous obstacles and discovers in what ways parts of his identity are lost, as he becomes a part of the "melting pot" that is the United States.
Directed by Toy Boat Theatre artistic director Marilyn Bennett, and supported by assistant professor Michael Kula as the UW Tacoma liaison, the play features an ensemble cast of current UW Tacoma students, alumni and members of the community. Among them are Akua Asare-Konadu, a senior majoring in politics philosophy and economics, and Lizbett Benge, who graduated from UW Tacoma in 2014 with a Masters of Arts in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in community and social change.
Asare-Konadu – who also appeared in Unwritten Women, as Mrs. Hawkins – takes on the role of the goddess Naja, who she describes as a parallel to Athena. "Like Athena, Naja is this sort of omnipotent, all-knowing, very wise woman. So, with that sort of wisdom comes knowing when and how to use it. And Naja wields that wisdom in a very correct way." Asare-Kondu says. "In Anon(ymous), Naja has to use her wisdom to allow Anon to go on his own path and do his own thing."
Benge talks about her character, Ritu, by focusing on the contemporary aspect that makes her and the story of Anon(ymous) unique. "It is important that audiences understand the contours of Ritu's life both as a former employee of a sweatshop and an immigrant business owner," Benge says. "She might seem tough and hard, but it is for good reason."
Both actors approached understanding their characters in different ways. Benge says she “approached playing Ritu by getting a sense of her intrinsic motivations and how she manifests power.” She also wanted to construct a backstory for the character from the actual text of the play.
Meanwhile, Asare-Konadu says her preparation was a mixture of rereading The Odyssey and studying strong female characters, “women who know what they want and won't let anybody run them over.” She says that looking at her family’s history, coming to the United States from Ghana was another source of inspiration. “My name Asare means ‘warrior’ and Konadu means ‘graceful king’. So, those aspects were something that I had to be mindful of, something I wanted to try and represent."
Anon(ymous) is being performed in an unique space on the UW Tacoma campus. The black box theater in the Cherry Parkes building provides plenty of intimacy between the actors and their audience. According to Benges and Asare-Konadu, it also represented some interesting challenges and opportunities for them as performers.
“I actually find that I have more freedom to add nuances to characters that wouldn't otherwise be there,” says Benge. “The intimacy of the theater space allows for smaller eye, body, face movements to be picked up on by audience members, and it feels as though more of ‘me’ is retained in the process.”
Asare-Konadu’s experience has been similar. She says the space makes the performers more creative, but it also makes them highly aware of viewing angles. “In that space, you have to be aware of how you are communicating when you're standing in a particular direction. You have to make different decisions on how to best move your body around, in order to give the greatest effect.”
In the end, both performers see the production of Anon(ymous) as a step in the right direction for performing arts at UW Tacoma.
"I think UW Tacoma is embarking on something new in its history, and has ample resources to bring some of the area's most talented people to campus," Benge says.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org